Horse barns locally here in Central Oregon, as well as in other areas have traditionally preferred hay put up in small bales versus the mid-sized and big bales (800-2000lbs). This is because the small bales can be handled one at a time easier and no equipment is required. But with this spike in hay prices, I have had some success in getting some big bale horse barn interest. This post is about the pros and cons of big bales and how a horse barn can convert to them and potentially save time and money.
Many hay producers have settled on the 3X4 bale size because then they can stack the bales 3 high on the trailer versus 4X4 bales that can only be stacked 2 high because of height restrictions when hauling. 3X4 bales can weight between 1000-1500 lbs based on kind of hay it is and moisture levels. Alfalfa usually is the heaviest, while straw is the lightest. If a horse barn uses 200 tons a year, it would be roughly 290 big bales versus 4,000 100lb small bales. Big bales can be stacked as high as the loader can reach, while small bales are usually stacked no more than 18 feet high.
The main advantage I see in big bales for horse barns is the ease of transportation, both from the farm to the barn, and even from barn to the various corrals. Many trucking companies no longer haul small bales because of the hassle of unloading and the liability issues of losing their load. Farmers and small trucking operations still haul small bales, but it’s just a big hassle. Big bales however take far less time to load and unload, and they ride so much better than a loose, wobbly stack of small bales. Big bales do take a machine to unload, either a grapple, squeeze, or bale spears, but unloading a semi of small bales is usually done with a grapple or squeeze as well.
Once the semi reaches the horse facility, it must be unloaded with a tractor or backhoe that has some weight. Even unloading one bale at a time, the leverage of a 1300 lb bale 8 feet in the air is considerable but a backhoe or a heavy built 80hp tractor usually has no problem. I use a bale spear that I built myself for $300 and chains or bolts on to the front bucket of a loader and it works great! So if a horse facility does not have a heavy enough tractor, chances are they have a connection with someone who does own a backhoe or another piece of equipment heavy enough to unload a semi and then they just chain or bolt on the spear and they are in business! Once the bales are unloaded, they can be handled with a 40hp tractor pretty easy. Most small Kubotas or other small tractors have loaders with over 2000 lb capacity as long as the bale is not lifted to high. Using a small tractor, the bales can be transported easily all over the facility. Spears are also manufactured for 3-point hitches, and then the bales can be moved around and the bucket is usable for other jobs. A 3-point hitch have much higher load ratings than a loader and the center of gravity is lower so the tractor is more stable.
In addition to the ease of transportation, big bales are usually cheaper per ton and more readily available. Big bales are almost always $10-$20 cheaper per ton because of the lower baling cost for the farmer. However hay farmers with big bales almost always require semi-load lots versus small loads. But if the horse facility has more than 10 horses, a semi load should be no problem.
The last main benefit of big bales is that they store much better out in the weather. When stacked, the top 6 inches or so of the top bales absorb most of the moisture, leaving most of the hay in great condition even for horses. If tarped, the bales are near barn-stored quality if barn space is an issue.
In conclusion, big bales offer many advantages for horse facilities. They are easier to transport from the hay producer, easier to haul around the horse barn, as well as cheaper on a per ton basis. They remove much of the stress of hauling and they even store better out in the weather.